Archives for February 2018

NYT Financial Tuneup Day 4: Retirement

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

nyt_ftuDay 4 of the NY Times 7-Day Financial Tuneup is about retirement. (Sign up for your own personalized tune-up here.) This assumes you are eligible for a 401(k) or similar retirement plan. The key action point is bumping up your retirement contribution rate by 1% and perhaps adjusting your asset allocation if necessary. Here’s a simple chart showing you why:

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If you’re making $50,000 annually and contributing 5 percent of your salary to your retirement account, assuming an annual return of 6 percent and a 3 percent annual salary increase, in 25 years, you will have about $198,000 in your retirement account. If you start to increase that percentage by 1 percentage point annually however, you will have over $550,000 in that same account in 25 years. By increasing the amount you save by 1 percentage point each year, you’ll save an extra $354,940 for retirement.

Increase Your Savings

  • Log into your retirement savings account. (Baby steps…)
  • Increase the amount of money taken out of your paycheck by 1 percentage point annually. Also check to see if you are taking full advantage of any company match.
  • Make it automatic. If you have the option, set it to automatically escalate in the future.

Rebalance Your Account

  • Log into your retirement savings account.
  • Determine how you should rebalance your account. What is your target asset allocation? Here’s mine but it’s probably more complicated than most people need. Consider a target-date fund, especially if it is a low-cost, passive version. Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab all have solid versions. I put my own mom in the Vanguard one.
  • Make it automatic. If you have the option, set it to automatically escalate in the future. My provider calls it “Auto-Increase”.
  • Rebalance your account. Basically, make sure your portfolio is still what you want it to be, as it may have shifted over time. You only need to do this once or twice a year, or you can set “bands” to rebalance when things get too out of whack.

Action, action, action. This move won’t make you save enough for retirement by itself, but it’s something tangible. If you are really going for financial freedom, you should use this as a platform to do even more. We have our 401k savings rate already set at 60% (max allowed by one provider) since we are working part-time (“semi-retired” sounds better!) with a lower income but still want get as close to the annual 401k limits as possible.

Financial Tuneup Recap (still in progress)

Berkshire Hathaway 2017 Annual Letter by Warren Buffett

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

brk2016Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) has released its 2017 Letter to Shareholders. Instead of reading various media coverage about one aspect, I recommend reading the entire thing straight from the source. It’s only 17 pages long and (as always) written in a straightforward and approachable fashion. Even if you aren’t interested in BRK stock at all, reading the letter can be educational for individual investors of any experience level. Here are my personal notes with quoted exceprts.

Never use borrowed money to invest (leverage).

Our aversion to leverage has dampened our returns over the years. But Charlie and I sleep well. Both of us believe it is insane to risk what you have and need in order to obtain what you don’t need. We held this view 50 years ago when we each ran an investment partnership, funded by a few friends and relatives who trusted us. We also hold it today after a million or so “partners” have joined us at Berkshire.

There is simply no telling how far stocks can fall in a short period. Even if your borrowings are small and your positions aren’t immediately threatened by the plunging market, your mind may well become rattled by scary headlines and breathless commentary. And an unsettled mind will not make good decisions.

Lack of acquisitions. Berkshire hates paying too much for a company. They are also quite patient. Right now, there are many other competing buyers willing to pay high prices, so that is why their cash hoard keeps growing.

The less the prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we must conduct our own.

Cash (Treasury Bills) is king.

During the 2008-2009 crisis, we liked having Treasury Bills – loads of Treasury Bills – that protected us from having to rely on funding sources such as bank lines or commercial paper. We have intentionally constructed Berkshire in a manner that will allow it to comfortably withstand economic discontinuities, including such extremes as extended market closures.

At yearend Berkshire held $116.0 billion in cash and U.S. Treasury Bills (whose average maturity was 88 days), up from $86.4 billion at yearend 2016. This extraordinary liquidity earns only a pittance and is far beyond the level Charlie and I wish Berkshire to have. Our smiles will broaden when we have redeployed Berkshire’s excess funds into more productive assets.

Be patient.

The light can at any time go from green to red without pausing at yellow.

Wells Fargo and Bank of America stock. If you’re looking for individual stock ideas, many people copycat the holdings of Berkshire Hathaway.

Charlie and I view the marketable common stocks that Berkshire owns as interests in businesses, not as ticker symbols to be bought or sold based on their “chart” patterns, the “target” prices of analysts or the opinions of media pundits.

I would also consider the overlap between the holdings of Berkshire Hathaway and Daily Journal Corporation (Chairman Charles Munger). Both have significant stakes in Wells Fargo and Bank of America in an approximate 3:2 ratio. (Both also own a much smaller amount of US Bancorp.) Keep in mind these are bought for the long run:

Stocks surge and swoon, seemingly untethered to any year-to-year buildup in their underlying value. Over time, however, Ben Graham’s oft-quoted maxim proves true: “In the short run, the market is a voting machine; in the long run, however, it becomes a weighing machine.”

Hedge fund bet. As expected, the S&P 500 index fund won against a group of actively-managed hedge funds, but there were some interesting details in the final results. Something to discuss further in a separate post.

Risk vs. time horizon.

Investing is an activity in which consumption today is foregone in an attempt to allow greater consumption at a later date. “Risk” is the possibility that this objective won’t be attained.

I want to quickly acknowledge that in any upcoming day, week or even year, stocks will be riskier – far riskier – than short-term U.S. bonds. As an investor’s investment horizon lengthens, however, a diversified portfolio of U.S. equities becomes progressively less risky than bonds, assuming that the stocks are purchased at a sensible multiple of earnings relative to then-prevailing interest rates.

Past shareholder letters.

Ikigai – Finding Your “Reason For Being”

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

ikigai

I stumbled across the concept of ikigai in Japanese culture – loosely translated as “reason for being” – in this Medium post. The Venn diagram above appears to be taken from this Toronto Star article (which is based on another work, and so on…). The graphic suggests that we asks ourselves these questions to find our ikigai:

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need from you?
  • What can you get paid for?

In other words, Ikagai is not just your passion or something that makes you happy. I searched for deeper explanations and found this BBC article with the most satisfying one:

Ikigai is what allows you to look forward to the future even if you’re miserable right now.

I was reminded of this previously-mentioned Venn diagram by Bud Caddell regarding finding the right job:

caddell620

In essence, the question “What does the world need from you?” is collapsed into “What can you get paid for?” above. If you’re looking for the ideal job, then I suppose that is a good shortcut.

However, not everyone’s reason for waking up every morning involves money. The BBC article cites a 2010 survey of 2,000 Japanese men and women where just 31% of participants cited work as their ikigai. That means for 69% of Japanese people, their ikigai is something else. Family, friends, community, a hobby, a volunteer position.

Food for thought.

NYT Financial Tuneup Day 3: Apply For a Better Credit Card

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

nyt_ftuDay 3 of my NY Times 7-Day Financial Tuneup is called Find the Best Credit Card for You. (Sign up for your own personalized tune-up for full details.) The key again is to actually apply for a better card, not just think about it and then keep your old card with lukewarm rewards and/or high interest rates.

Scenario 1: Carrying a balance

If you are still working on paying down your credit card balance, the NYT (surprise!) recommends a credit card with a low interest rate and fees. The average credit card interest rate is something like 17% APR, which is simply nuts. Ignore cashback and rewards credit cards, as they have higher interest rates in general that will overwhelm any potential rewards. The NYT specifically mentions the following cards:

  • Simmons Bank Platinum Visa has a lower variable APR (currently 9.5%) with no balance transfer. This might be a better solution if you plan on carrying a balance forever (why?!?).
  • Discover it Secured credit card improves your credit score (and thus perhaps your interest rates) as it will help build a positive credit history with no annual fee. You can have poor credit as a $200 security deposit is required for a $200 credit line.

If you’re going to apply for a new card, I prefer the following cards with 0% introductory APRs with no balance transfer fee. Here, the plan would be to consolidate balances and design a plan to pay it all off within the promotional period. After that, the rates will shoot back up again unless you do another balance transfer.

Scenario 2: No credit card debt

If you do pay off your balances every month, then you can ignore interest rates and focus on getting points, miles, or cash back on your purchases. The NYT specifically mentions the following cards.

  • Citi Double Cash card for simple cash back. It pays “1 percent back when you make the purchase and another 1 percent when you pay the bill. The best part? There’s no need for you to track points or decide when to cash out. The money comes back to you automatically.”
  • Bank of America Travel Rewards Card for simple travel rewards with no annual fee.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred for those that collect airline miles and know how to use them efficiently.

Your goal with your new card should be to get all of the rewards you can just for spending as much as you normally would.

I’m giving the NYT an overall thumbs-up on these recommendations for most people. However, I would only recommend the Bank of America Travel Rewards card if you can participate in their Preferred Rewards program and reach the Platinum (2.25% back towards travel) or Platinum Honors (2.62% back towards travel) tiers. Otherwise, the Citi Double Cash is better than 1.5% back.

The hard part: Actually applying for a new card! The reason why there are so many juicy incentives for credit cards is that most people still don’t like to bother with applying for a new card. Change can be hard. If you’ve been thinking about making a switch, let today be the day!

Financial Tuneup Recap (still in progress)

NYT Financial Tuneup Day 2: Trim Your Budget

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

nyt_ftuDay 2 of my NY Times 7-Day Financial Tuneup is called Trim Your Budget. The key here is to take action, not just do research and then put it off again. (If you just want to daydream, Day 1 was Optimize Your Thinking.) Again, the NYT doesn’t have direct links, but anyone with a (free) NYT account can get their own personalized list of tasks.

Reviewing your monthly budget annually is a simple way to keep your spending in check. Don’t worry, we’re not going to ask you to cut anything you love, just to trim your spending in places you may not even notice. After all, if you benefit from your weekly yoga class or truly enjoy your restaurant night, have at it. Just be honest with yourself about the services that you truly use and enjoy. In comparison, if you have a languishing gym membership you never use, it may be time to cut that $50-a-month membership fee.

Round 1: Find an Easy Item to Cut

  1. Gather your credit card and checking account statements from the last month.
  2. List your spending. “…list any expense from the last month that occurs routinely: daily, weekly, monthly. From the cup of coffee you buy every morning, to your weekly manicure, to your monthly gym membership or magazine subscription.”
  3. Find an easy place to trim. “…most commonly-cut expenses are subscriptions to gyms, credit bureaus, newspapers and audio services.”

Here is rundown of recurring expenses with some commentary.

  • Mortgage – thankfully paid off a few years ago.
  • Property tax – yes, but not really negotiable. I suppose I could contest the assessed value of my house, but it seems pretty reasonable.
  • Car loan – none. My measure of car affordability is whether I can pay for it with cash. I’ve paid cash on every car, from $2,000 on up to 20x that.
  • Student loan – thankfully paid off that $30,000 a while ago.
  • Insurance – feels like we have so much insurance, but they have high deductibles to protect against catastrophic events. Car, homeowners, life, long-term disability, and umbrella insurance.
  • Food/grocery/take-out/restaurants – I’m sure we could trim something, but not in a clear-cut way. No coffee shop habit.
  • TV/internet – yes, this is a target for trimming.
  • Cellular phone – Still at $6 a month with Sprint for two lines.
  • Gym – yes, just barely worth the cost.
  • Gas
  • Medical
  • Clothing, gifts, etc – yes, again I’m sure we could trim something but we are okay with it overall.
  • Charitable giving – yes, but already thoughtfully budgeted for.
  • Credit monitoring, Netflix, magazines, music streaming, etc. – I pay for Amazon Prime and feel it is worth the money. No to Netflix, Spotify, HBO, Lifelock, paid credit monitoring, etc. A few magazines at $5 or less per year.

Round 2: Lower Your Bills

  1. Pick a bill to start with
  2. Find and review your latest bill
  3. Call your service provider
  4. Ask for a reduction in your bill

The hard part: Pick up the phone and call my cable provider. I’ve done it before, but it’s never fun. This tune-up did motivate me to do it, so I suppose that’s something. I called my cable provider and after 26 minutes, I was only able to squeeze about $5 a month in concessions by having them re-arrange my bill around to a “new plan” from my “old plan”. Even that required me to get past the initial lie that my “old plan” was “already a great deal”. ($60 a year in savings is not bad for 30 minutes of time, I suppose.)

I did not go all the way to setting a cancel date, as I wanted to avoid interruption in internet service. If you are ready to cancel, see Tips on Reducing Cable and Phone Bills From Ethically Ambiguous Experts.

In the end, I called up the duopoly DSL provider to get the new customer promotion for TV and internet. I confirmed that their was no credit check required. If it all works out, switching should save me around $50 a month ($600 a year). Switching back and forth isn’t fun, but it does save money!

Financial Tuneup Recap (still in progress)

Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card Review: 5% Back at Amazon + Whole Foods

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

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(Updated: Now with 5% back at Whole Foods for Amazon Prime members. Amazon recently announced free 2-hour delivery from Whole Foods in 4 US cities, with nationwide rollout expected later this year…)

Chase and Amazon have rolled out the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card, a new credit card (not store card) available only to Amazon Prime members. Highlights:

  • 5% back at Amazon.com and Whole Foods Market for Amazon Prime members. If you stop your Prime membership, you’ll be downgraded to 3% back.
  • 2% Back at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores.
  • 1% Back on all other purchases.
  • Sign-up bonus of variable amount based on each person’s account. I was offered a $70 Amazon Gift Certificate. Click on the “Apply Now” link to see your personalized offer, you’ll have time to stop the application.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • No annual fee.
  • Extended warranty protection. Extends the time period for the U.S. manufacturer’s warranty by an additional year, on eligible warranties of three years or less.
  • Purchase Protection. Covers your new purchases for 120 days against damage or theft up to $500 per claim and $50,000 per account.

Existing Amazon Rewards Visa Signature cardholder? If you have the original card and are an Amazon Prime subscriber, you should be “upgraded” to this new card automatically. You may see the change online first (your linked purchases will start earning 5% back instead of just 3% back) before you actually receive a new physical card.

Commentary. I recently did a Amazon Store Card review, about a retail card issued by Synchrony Bank that was only valid at Amazon.com. My overall opinion of this credit card is similar, except for the extended warranty protection. If you use gift cards to buy things at Amazon, you will forgo the extended warranty protection and purchase protection that many other credit cards offer. With this card, you will get the extended warranty protection and 5% cash back. How much is an extra year’s warranty worth? Depends on how many big-ticket items you buy at Amazon and how likely you’ll actually remember to use this benefit.

My rough rule of thumb is that a “hard” credit check can reliably net me at least $500 in value, usually from credit card sign-up bonuses but also potentially from bank bonuses and higher interest. It is very rare that I shop at any specific retailer enough to get $500 in savings. For example, it would take $10,000 of Amazon purchases at 5% back to net me $500 in cash back. (2% back at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores only draws a yawn when I can get that much cash back on everything. 1% cash back on everything else… zzzz.)

Now, the addition of the 5% back at Whole Foods adds a wrinkle for those that shop at Whole Foods regularly. If you were only getting 2% back before, now 5% on the combined spending at Amazon and Whole Foods might become more compelling. (Amazon recently announced it will offer free two-hour delivery of Whole Foods groceries in four cities – Austin, Cincinnati, Dallas and Virginia Beach. The plan is to expand delivery nationwide later in 2018.)

For the casual Amazon shopper, 5% rotating category credit cards often have Amazon or a place that sells Amazon gift cards as an eligible category. Other cards like the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offer 6% back at grocery stores (that sell Amazon gift cards) or Chase Ink Business cards offer 5% back at office supply stores (that sell Amazon gift cards). Basically, there are other ways that I can stock up on Amazon gift cards at 5% off without having this card.

Bottom line. If you are a loyal Prime member that spends a lot of money at Amazon and/or Whole Foods and prefer simplicity, the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card can add up to serious rewards. Be sure to make it your default card for your Amazon account. You can then track all your Amazon spending on one card, and also get extended warranty protection and purchase protection. As with any rewards credit card, you should always pay off your bill in full as the annual interest rate on balances is significantly higher than 5%.

NYT Financial Tuneup Day 1: Optimize Your Thinking

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

nyt_ftuI’ve been in a “Back to Basics” mood and decided to work through the NY Times 7-Day Financial Tuneup. I don’t have direct links to each day as you need a (free) NYT account to view your personalized list of tasks. Instead, I’m quoting selected portions to illustrate the general idea. These are my answers and not a statement of what is best – each person’s situation is different but equally valid.

Day 1: Optimize Your Thinking

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What do I value?

Try to figure out why you are working so hard and worrying about your finances. After that, setting financial priorities may be simpler.

  • Spending quality time with family and friends. Being able to spend time with my children while they are still young (and want to spend time with me too). Having the opportunity to teach them things and build a good lifelong relationship. I hope to avoid the cycle where young children spend all day cared for by paid professionals, and in return the elderly are also cared for all day by paid professionals. (Selfish, I know…) I’m not against school or babysitters – I also enjoy spending one-on-one time with my spouse.
  • Having personal time to pursue my own educational goals. I also want time all to myself. I want to try things that I’m not very talented at but I still enjoy. (This means dropping work, which often means getting paid for one specialized task.) I’d like to work on residential solar PV + battery storage + water catchment systems. I still have a plenty of room to improve my cooking skills. I want to smoke my own Texas-style briskets. I took this Vanguard retirement quiz and scored mostly as a “learner”.
  • Find a way to give back. I also answered some questions as a “teacher” and “volunteer” role. I’d like to figure a way to give back to my community where I feel like I am making a tangible difference (as opposed to my current cash contribution with unknown impact). I still haven’t figured this one out.

What brings me the most joy?

Figure out the two or three things you spend money on in your life that bring you the most joy. Is it your annual vacation? Your fancy gym membership? The great apartment close to work?

  • Our house. Location was our top priority, and it is close to both work, school, and most extracurricular activities. We chose less square footage in exchange for 30-minutes less (each way) in commute time. While we managed to pay off the mortgage, it did take up a big chunk of our income for a long time. The house is older and also has higher maintenance needs.
  • Extended annual trip every summer. We chose a school schedule with traditional summer breaks (no homeschooling, no year-round school). As a result, I would like to be able to plan a longer 4-week vacation each year in a different destination. This would help to better immerse ourselves in a different world. For example, one year might be studying national parks and then going on a cross-country USA road trip in an RV. The next might be Japan and having the kids prepare by learning about Japanese culture in the months leading up.
  • Home-based DIY fun. I like DIY culture (even though I’m not especially good at anything) and simple rules like “Eat anything you want, just cook it yourself“. We don’t eat out at restaurants often, but we do cook a lot at home and sometimes buy more expensive ingredients like good cheese, vegetables, and random things that aren’t on sale. We buy nice kitchen hardware. Another similar thing we are going to try is home-based birthday parties (with 3 kids the $$$ adds up), which means we can “invest” in things like a playground/swing set, vegetable garden, and backyard movie screen. (Tree house would be a stretch goal.)

Financial Tuneup Recap (still in progress)

Why Inflation Feels High

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Here is an interesting chart of price changes from 1997 to 2017 for various good and services as measured by the BLS (which tracks CPI and inflation). The Carpe Diem blog author argues that the stuff that got more expensive was heavily regulated by the government, while the stuff that got cheaper was subject to free market forces. I don’t agree completely with that explanation.

My reaction: The red lines were purchases that were quite hard to avoid (medical costs, childcare, education), while the blue lines were mostly optional consumer items. I buy cars, household furnishings, TVs, and (sadly for you fashionable folks) replacement clothes only about once a decade. I can put off buying a new car or TV, but I can’t put off my childcare bill.

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Study: Working Longer vs. Saving More

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

savebuttonbankHere’s a working paper titled The Power of Working Longer by Gila Bronshtein, Jason Scott, John B. Shoven, Sita N. Slavov which compares the effect of working longer (delaying your retirement date) and increasing your savings rate while working.

The basic result is that delaying retirement by 3-6 months has the same impact on the retirement standard of living as saving an additional one-percentage point of labor earnings for 30 years. The relative power of saving more is even lower if the decision to increase saving is made later in the work life. For instance, increasing retirement saving by one percentage point ten years before retirement has the same impact on the sustainable retirement standard of living as working a single month longer.

Update: I read the full paper and here’s my view. For most households earning less than $100,000 a year with average savings rates, Social Security changes matter more than returns on investment portfolio. What really matters is delaying Social Security and getting the resulting higher monthly income for life. For most people, that’s the same as working longer as they can’t just wait around without a paycheck.

If you are close to retirement, chances are that working longer is the best practical solution to improving your financial outlook. Working longer means your portfolio grows a bit more hopefully, your Social Security check gets bigger, and your retirement length gets shorter (annuities pay more).

However, if you are young, it is quite easy to tell yourself today that you’ll simply work a bit longer far in the future. When the time comes, you may not be given the option of working longer either due to job loss or disability. If you take this too far, you could just tell yourself that you’ll simply work until you die and you won’t have to save anything at all.

You can pay $5 for the full paper, or you may be able to get free access if you have a .edu or .gov e-mail address.

Keep Moving In The Right General Direction

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

compass200Here is some career advice by longtime Silicon Valley executive Ben Fathi in his post What I Learned from Working for Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. An excerpt (bold added):

What I can tell you as a piece of career advice is to only work on things you are passionate about. As long as you’re learning, keep at it. There is so much to learn and this industry moves so quickly that you will fall behind if you stop learning even for an instant.

As long as you’re moving in the right general direction, I used to tell people, it’s all good. Don’t try to plan out your entire road trip from New York to LA before you start out. (If I’d done that, I would have lived an entirely different life — never having even signed up for that first computer science class.) Instead, on your way to LA, just make sure you’re driving in a generally westerly direction, then keep going. And keep learning along the way, course correcting as necessary. You’ll eventually end up in the right place; and you’ll have a lot of fun along the way. I know I did.

You could make parallels between career and financial advice. Keep yourself moving in the right direction. As long as you’re learning, your career will progress. As long as you keep saving and investing in quality productive assets, your portfolio will grow over time. If you find something you don’t mind working feverishly on for 60-80 hours a week (ideally when you are young and don’t have a family to ignore), go for it. Add in some luck, and both your career and finances will be zooming along. If you aren’t zooming right now, don’t worry. Just keep moving forward in the right general direction.

Discover Card + Amazon 1-Click $10 Promotion

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Updated. It looks like this offer is back as of February 2018. I was able to get another $10 credit even though I already got the previous $10 credit back in September. I still had the Discover card as my default 1-click payment method, but I did change to a Chase card right before clicking on the promo link below (not sure if that made any difference).

Original post:

discover10az

Amazon has a targeted offer for $10 Amazon credit when you switch your 1-Click default payment method to an eligible Discover credit card. They’ve run similar offers for Citi and Chase in the past.

The link should show your eligibility (for the account that is currently signed-in). It probably won’t work if your 1-click default method is already Discover. You could try and remove it first. I had a Discover card already in my account, but not set as 1-click, and it worked for me. $10 credit valid on items both sold and shipped by Amazon.

If you have a Discover card, you may also want to sign up for their free Social Security Number Monitoring and New Account Alerts. I keep my Discover it card open for its rotating 5% cash back rewards.

Free Social Security Calculator Tool: Estimate Your Benefits

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

socialsecuritycardThere are some (mostly young) skeptics, but Social Security should remain a major pillar of your future retirement income. For over 60% of current retirees aged 65+, Social Security makes up the majority of their income. Therefore, it may be worth spending some extra time figuring out how it works.

First, you should sign up for a mySocialSecurity account at SSA.gov. For many people, this is the only way to view your current benefit eligibility as they are phasing out those annual green paper statements. You will find some interesting information including eligible earnings history. (For example, I earned $1,814 in the summer after high school.) Also, if you claim your account first, it prevents an potential identity thief from opening an account in your name and stealing your benefits.

Second, you can check out this unofficial Social Security helper tool to test out different scenarios. Created by an Google engineer named Greg Grothaus in his spare time, the site takes your earnings history and uses Javascript to analyze it within your browser. No data is submitted over the internet. Found via The Finance Buff.

Here are some scenarios you might test out:

  • What happens to my benefit if I earn additional wages for several more years? What if I stop working forever?
  • How does my benefit change as my total earnings grow during my lifetime?
  • What happens if I choose to take my benefits early? What if I delay and take them late?

You might not know that your eventual benefit is based on your top 35 annual indexed earnings values. Indexed earnings are simply the payroll wages you earned in a year multiplied by a number that adjusts for wage growth. I personally don’t even have 35 working years yet, so every additional year I work will be in my “Top35” and increase my future payout. Here are some charts based on my earnings history:

If I stop working immediately and then start taking benefits at my “normal” retirement age of 67 years, I will earn $1,666 per month ($19,992 per year). If I start taking money at age 62, I will earned a reduced $1,166 per month ($13,994 per year). Here’s the full chart:

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If I keep working for another 20 years at $50,000 per year, then my age 67 benefit will increase to $2,328 per month ($27,936 per year). If I start taking money at age 62, I will earned a reduced $1,630 per month ($19,555 per year). Here’s the updated full chart:

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Working/waiting an extra year may increase your payout enough to change your lifestyle significantly. An extra $100 per month may not seem that much, but that’s an extra $1,200 each year for the rest of your life that increases with inflation. If you don’t have adequate income from other sources, that could cover your medication copays for the year. It could be the difference between staying home and doing a video chat vs. flying and playing with your grandkids in person each year.

If you are on the early retirement track, that inserts a bunch of zeros in your “Top 35”. With this calculator, you can see how much that actually changes your eventual payout. Even if I continued to work another 25 years at $100,000 per year, my annual benefit at age 67 would be about $33,000 per year.

As a reminder, both SSA.gov and this tool only show you what your benefit will be under current law. Social Security isn’t a savings plan – current retirees are being paid from money taken from current workers. This means that changing demographics will require some sort of modification by 2035. From the Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration:

Currently, the Social Security Board of Trustees projects program cost to rise by 2035 so that taxes will be enough to pay for only 75 percent of scheduled benefits. This increase in cost results from population aging, not because we are living longer, but because birth rates dropped from three to two children per woman. Importantly, this shortfall is basically stable after 2035; adjustments to taxes or benefits that offset the effects of the lower birth rate may restore solvency for the Social Security program on a sustainable basis for the foreseeable future.

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